Fish in a Net

The last parable found in this Matthew 13 package is the parable of the fish and the net:
“Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Let’s do one last application (for now) of the Jewish hermeneutic to this parable, shall we?

The teaching of this parable appears to echo the parable of the weeds (which happens to be the same “explanation” that launched the teacher into these additional parables). The surface level p’shat reading of this teaching appears to be that the world contains both good fish and bad (similar to weeds and wheat in a field). The Kingdom is a reaffirmation that the good and the bad will be dealt with “by the angels.” The implied surface level assumption, based on our earlier parable about wheat and weeds, would be that the parable is inviting us to trust in this harvesting process and not try to do the separating ourselves.

The remez contained in this parable could be many. First (and foremost), consider the idea of fish and a net in relation to Ezekiel 47, keeping in mind that the image driving this passage is an apocalyptic vision of the restoration of all things:
There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live. Fishermen will stand along the shore; from En Gedi to En Eglaim there will be places for spreading nets. The fish will be of many kinds—like the fish of the Mediterranean Sea. But the swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they will be left for salt.

Again, just like the case with the birds that came to nest in the branches of the mustard tree, the fish are representative of the Gentile nations in most Jewish tradition and rabbinic teaching that I have seen on Ezekiel 47.

Not only this, but again there is a reference to the angels throwing the bad into the “fiery furnace.” If this is also a remez, then we might have a couple of additional connections, as well. The first mention of “furnace” would be in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah — the story of judgment coming to those who did not show hospitality and mercy to the foreigner — a beautiful connection to Ezekiel 47. The addition of the “fiery” description causes many to think of the book of Daniel (Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah) and the tales of perseverance, which would also be a similar connection to the parable of the soils and the remez to Isaac persevering in the land. This all can be seen without even realizing one of the most massive stories told about Abram in the midrash is the story of him in a fiery furnace among the Gentiles.

All of this takes us much deeper into the parable to consider Jesus’s intended meaning. Could he be insinuating that the reason his followers should not be about the business of separating the weeds from the wheat and the good from the bad is that their primary calling in the world is to be a blessing to those very fish they might deem as bad? Could it be that if they did the work of God and judged the foreigner as a “weed” or a “bad fish” (even appropriately!), they would miss their calling (seen in Ezekiel 47 and all throughout Tanakh) and fall prey to the very judgment that awaited the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah? And wait, haven’t we heard Jesus teach on this already?

So it seems like this Jesus character is a broken record. And yet, because of his teaching style and his implementation of Jewish parables, his broken record teachings are anything but redundant.

But they are like a broken record. And we may be wise to listen to the themes Jesus repeats throughout his ministry.


A Treasure and a Pearl

I would like to deal with the next two mini-parables as one unit. (Wait, what? Two mini-parables together again?) We should be used to the process by now, so let’s jump right in, shall we?

To start with, here is the Text:
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field 
“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”

The teaching that likely lies on the surface of the parable is that the Kingdom of Heaven deals with things of great value. It’s worth giving everything you have to obtain it. Pretty straightforward and quite profound.

This is a little tricky, but what did you find? Did you do any digging (pun intended)? It would seem that the most obvious remez (backed up by the use of the word in the Septuagint) would be Proverbs 2:
My son, if you accept my words    and store up my commands within you,turning your ear to wisdom    and applying your heart to understanding—indeed, if you call out for insight    and cry aloud for understanding,and if you look for it as for silver    and search for it as for hidden treasure,then you will understand the fear of the Lord    and find the knowledge of God.For the Lord gives wisdom;    from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.He holds success in store for the upright,    he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless,for he guards the course of the just    and protects the way of his faithful ones.
Combine this remez with the fact that a “pearl” is a Hebrew idiom for a proverb and you have a very convincing case for the remez of these two parables.

This would mean at least part of Jesus’s drash surrounding this teaching is that the wisdom and understanding of the Kingdom is something that must be sought after and dug for. In other words, if you aren’t willing to do the work of preparing your soil, you aren’t going to find the wisdom buried in the field. The wisdom is buried. Notice the emphasis in Proverbs 2 about “understanding”; now, go back and think about the parable of the soils. What was the difference for the learner who was the good soil? “… the one who hears the word and understands it.” The understanding comes because somebody is willing to break up their unplowed ground, clear it of rocks, and burn away the thorns; it comes to the one who searches for truth as for hidden treasure.

If there’s one glaring issue remaining with all of this, it’s that the characters in these parables are off. Notice, with every parable told in this teaching, “the man” is the God character. The sower is God. The land owner is God. The farmer is God. Why are these parables different?

In short, I don’t think they are.

I used to argue with one of my colleagues (Aaron Couch) about the remez of this parable (again, this is the beauty of rabbinic teaching — we argued, in good spirit, about the Text). Aaron was convinced the remez is Proverbs 2, and I was convinced it is Ezekiel 16. While I now believe, looking at the language in Matthew and in the Septuagint, Aaron is correct about the direct remez, consider the following:
The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, confront Jerusalem with her detestable practices and say, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says to Jerusalem: Your ancestry and birth were in the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. On the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to make you clean, nor were you rubbed with salt or wrapped in cloths. No one looked on you with pity or had compassion enough to do any of these things for you. Rather, you were thrown out into the open field, for on the day you were born you were despised.
“ ‘Then I passed by and saw you kicking about in your blood, and as you lay there in your blood I said to you, “Live!” I made you grow like a plant of the field. You grew and developed and entered puberty. Your breasts had formed and your hair had grown, yet you were stark naked.’ ”

In the passage above, the phrase “entered puberty” can also be translated as “beautiful jewel.” Also, in Hebrew thought, there is plenty of wiggle room to use the term “pearl” and “jewel” interchangeably. Notice, then, this additional remez allows us to see the man/merchant as the God character. This also adds a significant layer to the teaching in that the Kingdom of Heaven is like the truth that when God found His people (i.e., you), He found a treasure — a true gem, a pearl — in a field. You were important enough to God that when He found you, there is nothing He wouldn’t do to acquire you. He sees your true value and is willing to sell everything in order to buy you as His own.


Explanations That Don’t Explain

Jesus is then asked by the disciples to explain the parables of the weeds and wheat. His response is quite interesting on multiple levels.

First, when you consider the things we’ve learned about eastern teaching and the art of “discovery,” you would not expect the teacher to EXPLAIN the parable at all, nor would you expect the students to expect a direct explanation. This situation does not disappoint our expectations. Jesus doesn’t explain much of anything and the disciples don’t seem to balk at that. All the rabbi does is further clarify the variables and elements of the parable. This may be viewed as an explanation, but…

Second, notice that Jesus does not even hint at the rabbinical mechanics of his teaching. There is no mention of p’shat, remez, or drash. In fact, one even begins to wonder if Jesus’s explanation actually becomes a secondary teaching. Are there more elements of remez hidden in his explanation? Is his explanation supposed to be a drash? This would not be surprising from a good rabbi. This is getting more complicated by the minute.

Third, this teaching is quite clearly a validation of the “three-part” Jewish eschatology (at least on the surface). As when we looked at the teaching of John the Baptist and his questioning of Jesus, Jesus continues to insist that the Kingdom is like a seed or leaven or weeds and wheat that grow together. On a p’shat level, it’s very easy to see that Jesus’s teaching should call us away from our modern feeling of needing to be the world’s “morality police” and win the “culture wars.” In fact, Jesus commands us not to root out the weeds that are inherent among the wheat. This is important because, no matter how discerning we are, we will misidentify some of them and uproot some of the wheat God has planted.

It should also be noted that this “explanation” is followed immediately with a series of more parables. Those additional parables should be seen as part of his explanation to his disciples. So the teaching should operate like this: Jesus tells the parable of the sower (with his “explanation”), the parable of the weeds, and the parables of the mustard seed and the woman with her yeast. Jesus is then asked by his disciples about the weeds (probably because this confronts their deeply held beliefs about how the Kingdom of God will come). Jesus responds with an “explanation” of the weeds, the treasure in a field, the pearl of great price, and the fish in the net.

Therefore, it would be safe to assume that the meanings of the following parables are going to be further teachings — deeper understandings — of his perplexing original teachings.

Are there things you find in the parable of the weeds and the wheat — p’shat, remez, drash? I think that there are, but frankly I’m still working on it, so there will be no post about it. But we do have the tools to dig into the parables that follow. What do you find? Are you willing to do the work? Or must Jesus make it easy and palatable for you? Must he properly “explain” his teachings?


A Woman and Her Dough

Just to review from the last post, the next mini-parable is the following:
He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

Let’s apply the same principles we’ve looked at in the past to this current parable.

There appear to be some similar attributes to this parable as the previous one (exactly as we would expect). We seem to have the same picture of something small being planted and having massive, unstoppable impact. Once you plant the yeast in the dough, it’s going to do its work. Also, it appears to be counter-intuitive. Yeast (leaven) is ALWAYS a picture of sin in Jewish thought. While Judaism is full of paradox and what is called “double-point truth,” this does not appear to be one of those cases. Leaven represents sin. And the kingdom of heaven is like… leaven?

The p’shat of this teaching lines up to bolster the teaching in the previous parable.

But, if we are becoming more Jewish in our ability to interpret rabbinical teachings, we have to start asking the question: Where have we heard this before; where is this in the Text?

The image of a woman baking a large amount dough would definitely strike familiarity in the mind of a Jewish learner. Especially if we translated the passage correctly (you will likely sense my smirk here). The passage here says “sixty pounds,” which does better than the NIV of 1984 did, but it still misses the better reference. Some translations will add a footnote pointing out that the Greek says “three measures,” or even “three satas.” This would be appropriately heard as “three seahs.” Does this ring a bell yet? Try Genesis 18:
The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. 
He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”
“Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.” 
So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.”
A woman who bakes leaven into three seahs of flour? Sixty pounds? Have you ever tried to make sixty pounds of flour into bread? Jewish tradition teaches that the story of Sarah and her three seahs was miraculous. The rabbis say that when you are willing to be generous and hospitable to a stranger, God will equip you to do unbelievable, even miraculous, things.

So what would the deeper teaching be here? The kingdom of heaven is like a woman and three seahs of flour. Jesus seems to be saying, “You know that day when Abraham and Sarah radically served the stranger? You remember how Sarah was willing to bake sixty pounds of flour for people she didn’t even know? That’s the kingdom.”

Link this parable up with the connected parable before it and you have a stunning teaching.

The Kingdom begins small, but it is unstoppable.
The Kingdom is counter-intuitive.
The Kingdom is a small seed that grows into a tree to bless the outsiders.
The Kingdom is a woman who was willing to show radical hospitality to a stranger.

And now the disciples have much to chew on. And so do we.


A Crazy Farmer and His Mustard Seed

The next two mini-parables will provide us with an opportunity to put the content of our last post to work. Jesus tells two that seem to be connected and told as a pair together. They read in Matthew 13 like this:
He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

Now, let’s go about applying the principles of p’shat, remez, and drash to these teachings.

There appear to be some general principles lying on the surface of the first parable. Jesus seems to be teaching directly that the kingdom of heaven does not come with trumpets and crashing explosions (you may remember our “two-part vs. three-part eschatology” conversation). Instead, the kingdom starts as something small and unimpressive, yet these small kingdom investments have HUGE potential. Not only this, but the context of a mustard plant/tree helps, as well. Please note, even deep contextual study that opens up our understanding of a teaching is still dealing with the p’shat level of interpretation.

Mustard in the world of Jesus is akin to the most obnoxious weed in your neck of the woods that you just can’t get rid of. (What is it for you? I know for those of us here in the Northwest, thistle is a huge problem.) Mustard in this part of the world cannot be stopped; you can burn it, poison it, or pull it up, but this plant that spreads through the root system is nearly impossible to exterminate. A farmer who plants mustard seed in his field would be a laughingstock. Is Jesus teaching that the kingdom of heaven is counter-intuitive, foolishness to the world around it? At the very least, Jesus is teaching that the kingdom of heaven, if planted well, is unstoppable.

Not only this, but there are two different kinds of mustard in the world of Jesus. One form of mustard is a plant, like a vine which spreads along the ground. The second is a large shrub that is actually considered a “tree” in their world. Jesus starts His parable with the plant and ends it with a tree. This is problematic, because the two mustards are different entities; the one doesn’t become the other. So what is Jesus saying?

You may remember from our study in Genesis that questions or problems like these are often intentional indicators that there might be more going on. When you get questions like these as a student, begin looking there for the…

The true beauty of living in the information age is the incredible tools at our disposal for Bible study. Once you are aware of where you want to start looking and/or what you want to start looking for, you are simply a keyword search away from finding incredible treasures (in this regard, biblegateway.com is your best friend).

Consider what you might find if you did a search for a tree in which birds come and rest in its branches. You might find a passage from Ezekiel 17:
“ ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will take a shoot from the very top of a cedar and plant it; I will break off a tender sprig from its topmost shoots and plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it; it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches. All the trees of the forest will know that I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.

“ ‘I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.’ ”

This brilliant connection would help us discuss the…

What is Jesus’s big idea in this parable? The prophesy of Ezekiel 17 is speaking of a day when the people of God might fulfill their calling to be a blessing for all nations. In the greater context of Ezekiel, it becomes clear that the birds of the sky are the Gentiles.

It becomes a better and better assumption that Jesus is teaching the kingdom of heaven is this small, counter-intuitive movement of God that cannot be stopped. It starts small, but has incredible potential. But what exactly are we talking about? What are the seeds that need to be planted? The disciple who knows his Text might immediately deduce that Jesus is suggesting generosity and love toward the Gentiles might be what the kingdom of heaven is all about.

But we may want to look at the sister parable to see if this is reinforced. Can you think about what the p’shat, remez, and drash of the parable of the yeast might be? Will the two parables be connected as we suggested earlier?

We’ll look at that in the next post, but this will be some great homework to chew on.


Jewish Hermeneutics

The next parable Jesus tells will be the parable of the weeds in the wheat. This parable will be “explained” later by Jesus, so I’ll wait to unpack it until then. I believe this package of teaching is supposed to be heard in a particular order, so I will work hard to keep it in place. However, this does provide the perfect break to talk about the art of Jewish hermeneutics — especially with regard to parables — and bring a whole new understanding to how we read the parables and teachings of Jesus.

First, we need to state that a parable is not designed to make the teaching easier, but “harder.” This helps us understand why Jesus, when asked why He taught in parables, essentially answered, “So that people won’t understand.” Key to understanding learning in an eastern context is realizing that an easterner believes if something can be learned by DISCOVERY, it is understood so much better than through EXPLANATION. This means that a good eastern teacher is going to bury the truth in a process of discovery. This requires a certain level (and expectation) of work; not everyone will be willing to engage learning in this way. But for people who are willing to do the “digging,” they will unearth treasures the teacher has buried. And because of the process of discovery, those truths will do so much more work than they would as simple propositions.

To serve this end, rabbinical Jewish teaching has “levels” of interpretation:

P’shat is a surface-level reading. The p’shat meaning of a parable is the one that is the easiest to discern and has the shallowest depth. Most Christian Bible students are familiar with this level of teaching and nothing else. The truth that is found on a p’shat level can be incredibly profound and profoundly applied. There are many good preachers and teachers who can take p’shat-level teaching and make it come alive and dance in a way that is a blessing to others. This is a gift of the western world and we should rejoice in it. Such a statement brings up a couple of points:

There is nothing wrong with p’shat. Even though the learner on this level is swimming in the shallow end, there is nothing wrong with the meaning that can be mined from a p’shat reading of the Text. The deeper levels are not “more true” or “more inspired” than p’shat. The different levels will not contradict each other. As western Christianity has proven, we can spend centuries in this level and not exhaust the truths it contains.

If a person does not know their Text, p’shat is all they are left with. This makes the preceding paragraph even more of a blessing. Understanding Jewish hermeneutics does not make the student more “learned” or give them special access to special truths that aren’t available to the ignorant. This is a good thing, as 90% of Christian teaching, exegetical interpretation, and expository preaching are based on nothing more than p’shat.

However, for the Jewish student who has put their time into the Text — who has the Text memorized — the rabbi has hidden a special treasure that is unlocked with a familiarity of the Text. The rabbi buries what is called a remez into the teaching; remez is a Hebrew term that means “hint.” And the remez is going to link the student to a passage in the Hebrew scriptures that will give context to the deeper meaning the teacher is driving at. In short, once a student has interacted with the p’shat reading of the Text, their intimate knowledge of the Text allows them to follow the “treasure map” (the remez) to the…

Drash is the idea of “truth hidden in story.” Once a student has found the “hint” in the Text, they are given tools that are going to help them unlock and understand the deeper meanings of the rabbi’s teaching. It should be noted here that the remez in a teaching is always up for debate. Oftentimes, there might not be only one remez intended for the teaching. In light of this, it stands to reason that the drash is never a simple idea either. Please do not confuse these levels as some form of “Bible Code” — it is not. There is not some hidden proposition found by applying a code. In fact, Jewish hermeneutics demands the interaction of more than one student. The remez and the drash have to be discussed, examined, and critiqued as a group for the process of discovery to take place. That is why learning is done in the context of a havurah, or a group of disciples.

The parable is designed to confound and perplex. The parable is a form of teaching that is provocative and difficult. It is not a teaching method that is supposed to bring surface clarity to the material. In fact, the parable often confounds the reader into even more wrestling. But that is the point. All of these disciples, wrestling with the parable, are now wrestling with the Text. What more could we ask for?

While we won’t discuss this level at the moment, it also bears mentioning that the fourth and deepest level of Jewish interpretation is sod. Sod is connected to “mystery” and cannot be learned or taught. Sod is a supernatural gift from God (or we might even say the Holy Spirit). An example of this would be Peter’s great confession (Matthew 16) where Jesus remarks that “man has not revealed this to you, but only my Father who is in Heaven.”

This whole discussion is designed to help us realize there is so much more under the surface of Jewish teaching than we realize. There is still so much more to learn and so much more to hear. Again, we are confronted with the need to know our Text and greatly increase our familiarity with the Old Testament. I am not going to try to convince you of this in this post — I will let the parables themselves do the teaching and the compelling. But I will raise a question:

If we do not understand the deeper levels and ultimate intentions of Jesus’s teachings, how can we call ourselves His followers?